How to get started with local history research
If you have a fascination for local history and aspire to becoming a local history writer, here are some hints on how to get started with local history research.
Use the internet
A good starting point for any type research is the internet. Simply enter the name of the place or area of interest you want to focus on and see what comes up. In addition to finding further information about your chosen subject, you may also discover a number of interesting leads which take you in a direction you hadn’t even thought of.
Visit a local library
A local library is a always a good starting point for your research. It is one of the best ways to find out what has already been written or documented. Even if the library does not have any relevant books, librarians are a great source of information and will often know who or where you can go to find out more.
Make a trip to your local museum
Museums are a treasure trove of historic artefacts and documentary and photographic material. Museum staff are usually very happy to share their knowledge of their collections and will help to point you in the right direction. They may even be interested in the book you aim to write – museum shops are the perfect place to promote and sell books on local history.
Visit your county record office or archives
All counties have county record offices (or county archives) which are typically run by local authorities. They house a vast amount of information including reference books, public search rooms and archive catalogues of a wide range of local organisations, churches, schools, businesses, prominent families and their estates, ordinary private individuals etc. etc.. The specialist staff who administer and conserve the historic records and documents, are always on hand to give advice and help to visitors.
Join a local history society
By joining a local history society you will get to meet people who have similar interests to you and who are happy to share their own research. Most societies have a number of ongoing research projects and so you may find that there is one that fits in with your area of research. Do a search on the internet or go to your local library to find out what local history societies there are in your area.
Don’t be too parochial
It doesn’t matter whether you want to write about a small hamlet, a village, a town or something larger, none of the communities living in these areas lived in isolation. Events both within and outside a community may have affected people living and working there. By describing the influences beyond your area of research, you will help to put your story into a wider historical context. Although noteworthy and colourful events such as a royal visit might seem the obvious areas to focus on, as a local history writer it is important to cover all aspects of life both good and bad. Use your research and your role as a local history writer to tell a story which describes the lives of ordinary, hardworking people and how they helped to build the community in which they lived.
Local history doesn’t just have to be about places
Most local histories focus on the history of a specific village or a town but there are some other interesting ways of telling stories which focus on history. For example, some writers have written about the story of roads which hold particular memories for them. In his book The A303: Highway to the Sun, Tom Fort ‘gives voice to the stories this road has to tell, from the bluestones of Stonehenge to Roman roads and drovers paths, to turnpike tollhouses, mad vicars, wicked Earls and solstice seekers’.
Other writers have chosen to write about waterways, factories, water mills, churches, inns, even manhole covers – you name it and it has probably been written about but if you can come up with something new here is your opportunity.
Canals: The Making of a Nation by Liz McIvor accompanied her BBC series on the history of canals which traced the history of canals from their importance as trade routes during the industrial revolution to their revival as waterways for pleasure and holidays.
Take a walk
Walk around the village, town, suburb or wherever you are interested in and take a closer look at all of the buildings. Look out for hints of the past hidden behind the more modern facades – the history of a building can often be virtually invisible behind a shop front. Check for dates and names on buildings which may reveal the history behind them. Also check out the oldest surviving buildings such as the local church and find out whether any former churches or schools have been converted for other uses. Are there any old factories and are they are still being used for the same purpose or have other businesses taken them over? If a business or industry has survived for many years this may be a chance to follow a completely different line of research. The owners may even be interested in producing a book about their history to give to their shareholders, customers, clients and employees and so you could put yourself forward as the local history writer for the job.